Monday, Nov. 3
Johannesburg, South Africa
I stood in the arrival gate of the Johannesburg airport feeling a bit sheepish.
A friend of a friend had offered to pick me up, but I had no idea what she looked like. I had told her how to find me: I’d have my light brown hair in a ponytail, I had written in an e-mail, and I’d be wearing a large blue backpack and carrying a small red one.
But no one approached me after I passed into the waiting area, and I realized as I rummaged through my bags that I didn’t even have her number. What were you thinking? I mumbled to myself.
That’s when I heard it: “Lexi?” A woman with large blond hair — she could have been Texan — came toward me.
“Marilyn?” I asked.
“Oh, no, I’m her mother,” the woman replied. “Marilyn is over there, looking for you.”
So I united with my escorts, natives of Jo-Burg. I had just one evening in the city while I waited for an early morning flight to Madagascar, and Marilyn and her husband Julian helped me see it from the perspective of a local. After lunch with their three kids and Marilyn’s parents, the couple gave me a driving tour of the city, including a quick stop in Soweto, a former African township.
The parts of Jo-Burg I saw were spread out like a suburb, and trees with beautiful purple flowers lined many of the streets. It was modern and westernized, certainly not the Africa most Americans imagine.
What struck me most was the security. Everyone says Jo-Burg is unsafe, which is partly why, as a solo female traveler, I spent most of my time in Cape Town instead. But I didn’t expect the presence of crime — or, more accurately, the effort to stop it — to be so visible.
Every house in Marilyn and Julian’s neighborhood, one of the city’s wealthier ones, had a huge wall around it, and most included a posted sign announcing some form of security such as “Armed Response.” Guards with guns watched over entrances to buildings and gated communities, including where the couple lived. To them it was normal; they greeted the armed men on their way into the neighborhood.
Marilyn and her mother explained what they saw as the reason for the high crime rate: poor border control.
The government lets anyone and everyone into the country, they complained, granting asylum at the drop of a hat. And since, as I described in my last blog post, South Africa is an African anomaly in its wealth, residents of neighboring countries flock there looking for opportunity. But often, Marilyn said, newcomers can’t find the jobs they had hoped for, and they end up as beggars or stealers.
The family’s home is just like one you’d see in America; they’ve got a sitting room, a backyard with a pool and three small dogs. Marilyn’s mom pointed out one difference though: a lockable gate inside the house that separates the first floor from the second. Should a thief make his way into the home, he’d have one more obstacle preventing him from reaching the family, who sleeps upstairs.
It also serves another function, Marilyn joked. It keeps the family’s dogs — which were, at that moment, sprinting around the house — from getting upstairs.